Less than a year ago, Katie Stam was a 22-year old student at the University of Indianapolis trying to fulfill a dream she carried since she was a three-year old girl tending to dairy cattle on her family’s farm. On January 24, 2009, Katie’s dream came true and she became a household name as she was crowned Miss America in front of a massive television audience with the backdrop of the Las Vegas lights.
As she prepares to crown her successor in January, Katie is still overwhelmed by the fruition of her dream and the impact of her reign, not only on the thousands of lives she has personally affected, but also on herself. While she looks forward to heading home for some quality time with her family and friends, as well as heading back to school, Katie shares her fond memories of this past year, her ambitions for life, and some words of wisdom for her successor.
Pageantry magazine: Let’s revisit your winning night. When you first heard that you had won—that you were the new Miss America—what was your first thought?
Katie Stam: People ask me that all the time — what was I thinking — and I don’t remember what I was thinking but I remember what I was feeling. Just imagine every positive emotion rushing through your body all at once, just pure adrenaline. It honestly is the moment that your dreams come true in every essence of the word. This was something I wanted to do since I was a little girl. I hope everyone has a chance to feel it.
PM: Your parents—have you had a chance to talk to them about what they thought and how they felt when they realized, “Our Katie is Miss America”?
KS: I don’t know if they still get it. Every once in a while I think it still hits us all, because once you get the title you’re off and running for an entire year. By the time that you finally get to wind down and settle in a bit, and really think about what you’ve done — it’s already over. They were the same as me, just pure joy and it’s still hitting them, little by little, every single day.
PM: We’ve spoken with many of your predecessors over the years, and we always talk about the extended travel and how much time you actually spend on the road. How much do you spend on the road and how much time do you get to spend with your family?
KS: I have been gone ever since January 15, which was the day I left for the pageant. I had a couple days over Easter and two days at Thanksgiving, and then some time off at Christmas. But other than that, I have been on the road every single day. This job is more than a full-time job. You work seven days a week, and you don’t get sick days. You get very little vacation, but you only have one year to do it. You need to cherish that one year. You’ll be overworked and exhausted, but you can look back on it and say that you did it and it was the best year of your life.
PM: With all of your travel experience and not having very much time off, what one travel experience stands out in your mind?
KS: As far as travel experiences, I’d have to say my trip overseas to Germany to visit with our military. It was the very first time I had ever been out of the country, period. But as far as experiences in general — picking a favorite — it’s hard to choose just one, because everything is so different, wonderful, and unique in its own way. But going to Germany, such a historical place and where all of my ancestors are from, it was just such an amazing experience. I can’t wait to go back some day.
PM: And, of course, with going over to visit the troops, how was your reception from them?
KS: Amazing. They are just so welcoming to you, because you took a moment to come see them. They just want people to appreciate them. They don’t want somebody to have sympathy for them for what they’re going through. They don’t want somebody to say they’re sorry for what they are going through, they just want somebody to say, “Thank you.” I go to all of these events across the country and meet so many people who are putting together care packages with thank you letters and memorabilia from the States to remind them of home, and I ask them (the soldiers), “Do you get those? What do you feel when you get those?” And they say that they are the best things they could ever get, because it shows them everybody is thinking of them. It’s truly amazing, the response we got over there, just because we took some time to spend with them.
PM: The Miss America Organization is known as the largest scholarship provider for women in the world. What has it meant to you being involved with the Miss America Organization?
KS: It has meant that it doesn’t matter what you dream or how big you dream. As long as you know what you need to do in order to accomplish that dream, you can do it. As a three-year old growing up on a farm, taking care of dairy cattle down in Southern Indiana, thinking that I want to be Miss America someday, it’s not just about thinking that I want to be Miss America. It’s about thinking, if I really want this, what do I need to do to get there, and then putting that plan in place and accomplishing it. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, as long as you dream and you know how to get there, you can do it.
PM: How about the scholarship money?
KS: The scholarship money is absolutely phenomenal. That’s the thing about this organization that sets us apart from any other organization out there. That, plus another hundred things I could ramble off, but the scholarship is absolutely number one. It is why the girls compete for this title, and it’s why we’ve been able to uphold the integrity of this organization for 89 years now. It’s why all of the former Miss America winners go on to do such amazing things. They were able to do so much because of that scholarship money and get such a great education. That’s what we are so proud of and that’s what we’ll continue to uphold.
PM: Tell us about the Children’s Miracle Network and what involvement the Miss America Organization has with it.
KS: CMN, as we like to call it, is a non-profit organization that provides funds for hospitals so they can do different things. They can do new research; they can provide new technology; they can provide better child life programs. Or they can just help pay the bills of patients. The amazing thing about hospitals in this country is that they will never turn away a child, regardless of their ability to pay or what illness or sickness they have. That’s something a lot of people don’t realize. They end up giving billions in uncompensated care for children, so CMN funds basically go to these 170 hospitals in order to balance and counteract this uncompensated care. Last year, CMN raised over $240 million — that is so much money. But then you think about the several billion in uncompensated care and it seems like such a small percentage. That’s why this organization is so important. We have to be able to provide our hospitals with the funds they need so that they can provide our children with the quality care that they need. I always tell people that even though we’re in tough economic times, if you can’t support this organization financially then support this cause by loving it, by volunteering at a hospital, or by telling someone else about it.
PM: What about some of the other organizations that the Miss America Organization shares partnerships with?
KS: We just recently signed on board with a new company called Nature’s Bottle, and it’s a brand new water bottle company that is really going to revolutionize our country. We’re getting ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of plastic bottles and the crazy part about that is that every single plastic water bottle that has been made in the past 100 years is still with us. Sixty million water bottles go into a landfill in a day; 40 billion in a year. Not only do they fill up our landfills, but whenever they start to degrade, they emit awful methane gasses into the air. This new water bottle is made from plants and not oils, so whenever it does biodegrade it’s not going to emit any harmful gasses into our environment. On top of that, it goes away in 27 days, and it won’t go into our landfills and our oceans. It is truly a revolutionary water bottle and we’re looking forward to introducing it.
PM: Your year of service is coming to an end, have you given that any thought?
KS: It’s slowly hitting me because I really have to start planning for life after. I have to think about buying a car, because I don’t have one. I have to get an apartment, because I don’t have a place to live right now. And then moving and what I’m going to do for income and finishing school. All of the planning is in the preliminary process, and I’m getting really excited and anxious to go back home.
PM: So school is in the future?
KS: It is, I have one semester left of school. I’m not going back right away, but I’m looking forward to going back and getting my degree, and then furthering my education, possibly in grad school or just going back for another degree in a different field. Education is so vital for a successful future. Having the blessing of a $50,000 scholarship is huge. How many people get to say they graduated from college debt free? I’m just so thankful for that, and I look forward to using that money to better myself through education.
PM: What advice would you give to one of the thousands of the young ladies across the country, as they are thinking about getting involved with the Miss America Organization?
KS: I say do it. What do you have to lose? To compete for the title it costs you nothing. I just wore a swimsuit that I already had, a dress that I already had, and an interview suit that I already had. If you just go into it and give it a try, the chances of you coming home with a scholarship are really good. There’s nothing to lose.
PM: As Miss America, you are a member of a very exclusive sorority. And another young lady is about to join your sorority in January. What advice will you give to your successor?
KS: It gives me goose bumps. Eighty-four women have held this title and we’re getting ready to add another one. We’re very honored and proud to be a part of it. I would tell her to just soak it all in. My best advice for her year is to just have a positive attitude in everything you do. On the days that you just don’t feel like you can do it — you don’t want to get up at 6 a.m. and have an 18-hour day — just think about the 14,000 women who wanted to be in your position. Think about how many millions before you wanted to be in your position but were not chosen. It is such a distinct honor and privilege. Just try to have as positive an attitude as possible and you will truly enjoy the experience. h
[Listen to the complete interview and hear Katie’s voice, in her own words, exclusively on the Pageantry PodCast]